BBC World: South Asia
Tuesday, July 28, 1998
Many Sri Lankan children become Tamil Tiger fighters each year. The United Nations Children Fund, which works to protect young people's rights and welfare, is dedicating this year to saving children from conflict. Unicef estimates there are around 500,000 children fighting in various wars throughout the world, particularly Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Uganda.
In Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tigers, who are fighting for a separate homeland, have been employing children in their guerrilla forces for seven years. The BBC correspondent in Sri Lanka says that, in some areas held by the Tamil Tigers, up to 50% of pupils have left schools to join the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
One young Tamil recruit said she knew how to lay landmines and operate
machine guns and pistols by the age of 13. "The leaders came
to our school and said we had to join the army in order to rescue our country,"
"After three months I was sent to my first operation. It was an attack on an army checkpoint and I was equipped with grenades." The risk of being killed or injured is not the only threat to the lives of the Tamil child bombers.
All new recruits are given cyanide capsules with instructions to swallow them if captured to avoid giving military secrets to their enemies. Sri Lanka's foreign affairs minister Lakshman Kadirgama said: " It reminds me very much of what happened to the German youth under Hitler towards the end of the of the Second World War. Hitler was recruiting teenagers, as young as 13 and 14."
But a recruitment officer for the Tamil Tigers insisted that no pressure was being put upon youngsters to join the LTTE. "It is not the Tigers who are recruiting young people, it is the government who are driving the children to the Tigers," he said. "A young person loses a parent - they feel real anger and they vent this anger by joining the Tigers."
The children of northern Sri Lanka live in the middle of fighting
The problems of children caught up in wars is being discussed at an international conference in London. The BBC Colombo correspondent Susannah Price examines the plight of young people whose lives have been traumatised by the 15-year conflict in Sri Lanka:
A group of children perform an intricate dance in a small theatre in the northern Sri Lankan town of Jaffna. The appreciative audience sit in the open air and applaud their performance. The members of the Centre for Performing Arts in Jaffna are justly proud of their performance - considering they live in one of the areas of Sri Lanka which has seen the most fighting in the past decade and much of which is still in ruins. "All the children in Jaffna are psychologically affected," said VJ Constantine, General Secretary of the Centre. "This is therapy and entertainment at the same time. It helps to stop the children being so traumatised."
The 15 years of war in Sri Lanka has meant that a whole generation has grown up knowing only the intractable conflict between the government and Tamil Tiger guerrillas. Hundreds of thousands of children who live in the north and east of the island have been directly affected by the violence their relatives or friends have been killed or injured for example. More than a quarter of mine victims are children.
Sivasan, 16, who is a student taking his 'O' Level exams stood on a mine in the compound next to his home in the northern Jaffna peninsula. "Of course my life is not the same", he said pointing to his artificial leg made of aluminium with a rubber foot. "I can carry on studying, but I can't play sport or lead a normal life like before."
The war has lead to huge numbers of families being displaced all round the north and east. Many left Jaffna in 1995 because of fears of fighting when the army was advancing and travelled southwards to live in the rural area known as the Wanni, which is controlled by the Tamil Tigers. In the area there are reports of shortages of teachers and equipment in schools and the health services lacking basic supplies.
"The teachers in that area face may problems, even to get water it was a struggle," said one woman who had just left the area. "The children suffer a great deal, they lost their elders and their neighbours and everything."
It is a story repeated in the refugee camps in the central town of Vavuniya and among the Muslim refugees who were forced to leave Jaffna by the Tigers and in countless other areas of the island.
The recent visit to Sri Lanka by the United Nations representative on children in armed conflict, Olara Otunnu, highlighted the issue of child soldiers. Aid agencies have accused the Tamil Tigers of recruiting child soldiers and the government claims that they are using them in combat. However in May the Tigers gave Mr Otunnu an undertaking not to use children below the age of 18 in combat and not to recruit children under 17 years. Although the move was widely welcomed it is not clear how this will be monitored. At the same time the army moved to deny reports that it was planning to recruit young people in schools. The military is extremely short of manpower but has reiterated it will not lower its age limit of 18 years.
Peace would come too late
The head of the presidential task force on child protection said
they had interviewed about 20 child soldiers who had been rehabilitated
- but would not specify from which group. "Most joined voluntarily because
they thought it was the thing to do. They also thought if they remained
there was the possible threat of the other side arresting them -
so they wanted to have a gun and have protection." He said there
were few facilities for rehabilitation which could store up problems
for the future. "Even when there is peace we are going to have a
large proportion of the population who are traumatised," he said.
"Many of the worst affected are the children. Even if there is peace,
it will be too late for them."
Sri Lanka's ethnic groups
Sri Lanka is a diverse nation. Sinhalese make up 74% of the population and are concentrated in the more densely populated south-west. Ceylon Tamils, whose South Indian ancestors have lived on the island for centuries, form around 12% of the population and live in the north and the east. Although Sinhalese are the clear majority, they are a majority with a minority complex, fearing the influence of the huge Tamil population across the Palk Straits in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The different groups tend to lead highly-segregated lives and live within their own communities, apart from in the capital, Colombo. Indian Tamils, a distinct ethnic group, represent about 6% of the population. They were brought to India in the nineteenth century by the British, to work in the tea and rubber plantations. They tend to live in south-central Sri Lanka. The population of Indian Tamils has been declining as many are repatriated to India. Other minorities include Veddas, Muslims (both Moors and Malays), and Burghers who are descendants of European colonial settlers. Most of the Sinhalese community are Buddhist, most Tamils are Hindu. Most of the Muslims practice Sunni Islam.
Sri Lanka claims the world's second oldest continuous written history, a history which chronicles the hostility between the Sinhalese ('people of the lion'), who probably came to Sri Lanka from India around the 6th century BC and became Buddhists when the religion arrived around three hundred years later, and the Tamils who came from Southern India a few centuries later. Chronicles and religious mythology have played a key role in developing communal identity and animosity on the multi-ethnic island. Tension began as far back as 237 BC but the stories of that period have been coloured by the religious nationalism and revivalism of the twentieth century. The Sinhalese see the unity of the island as intertwined with the Buddhist faith and oppose any attempt to divide it or give the Tamil areas greater autonomy. In the early sixteenth century, the first Portuguese traders began to arrive and the Dutch supplanted the Portuguese, who were then in turn supplanted by the British, although Dutch influence remains in some areas, including the law. Britain took full control of the island in 1815 and established a plantation economy. In 1931, the British granted Ceylon self-rule and a universal franchise. On February 4, 1948 Ceylon became independent.
The British colonial policy of divide and rule sowed the seeds of renewed tensions between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities after Independence. Tamils, although well-educated, were given a disproportionate number of top jobs in the civil service by the British. Once the Sinhalese majority held sway, its politicians sought to redress the balance with populist but discriminatory policies against Tamils. In 1956, the victory of SWRD Bandaranaike on a platform of Sinhalese nationalism led to him declaring Sinhala to be the country's official language among other anti-Tamil measures. Communal tension and violence increased from 1956 onwards as Tamils became increasingly frustrated. By the mid-70s, Tamils were calling for a separate state in the north and east of the country. In the 1977 elections, the separatist TULF won all the seats in Tamil areas, while groups such as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) began to use violence for the same ends. In 1983, the country erupted into full scale communal violence after 13 soldiers were killed by Tamils. Hundreds of Tamils were killed in Colombo and 100,000 fled to south India. Members of the TULF were thrown out of parliament and the security forces moved into the north and east of the country to try to drive out militant groups.
As the situation deteriorated, with human rights violations on both sides, Prime Minister Jayawardene sought to involve India through an agreement with its Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi. India has a population of around 55 million Tamils, mainly in the state of Tamil Nadu and some Sri Lankans felt that the LTTE was gaining considerable support from them. Negotiations began in 1985 and the Sri Lankan government made a number of concessions to the Tamils with some devolution of power and official status for the Tamil language.
In 1987 the Sri Lankan government went on a major military offensive in the north of the island but India raised objections to the methods used and warned that it would intervene on humanitarian grounds if it thought the Tamils were being starved out. Relations between the two countries deteriorated rapidly as Indian planes dropped supplies into Jaffna. In July 1987, India and Sri Lanka signed an accord, which the LTTE at first went along with, to try to settle the problem through devolution and greater autonomy for the Tamils while an Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) would disarm the rebels.
Concessions of autonomy to the Tamils led to a backlash among the Sinhalese population, especially around proposals to merge the northern and eastern parts of the island into a Tamil-dominated province. Sinhalese nationalism began to grow and was fanned by Bandaranaike's SLFP. It found violent expression in the JVP, who fought against the accord with India, undermining the government's position. The JVP assassinated a number of political figures and tried to intimidate voters during the 1988 election.
Meanwhile, in the North, the accord was repudiated by the LTTE after the death of 15 of its fighters in custody. The Indians were then drawn into fighting with the Tamil Tigers with whom they were ill-equipped to deal. In 1989, peace talks resumed between the LTTE and Premadasa which led to Premadasa calling for the withdrawal of Indian troops. India withdrew its forces from Sri Lanka in May 1990. On May 21, 1991 Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in India during an election campaign trip. The Tigers were held responsible for the killing.
Attempts have continued intermittently for the last few years to try to resolve the conflict but all have proved unsuccessful. In January 1995, the government and the Tigers agreed a truce, but this only lasted for a short period as the Tigers saw the proposals as inadequate and fighting resumed. In October of that year, the government launched an all-out offensive against the Tamil Tigers, in which important territory was taken including, in April 1996, the Jaffna peninsula. But the Tigers, who have considerable resources, show no signs of giving up and continue to attack military bases and use suicide bombers. In April 1997, then-British Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, was involved in trying to broker an agreement between the government and opposition parties to try to end the conflict. The rebels also assassinated two members of Sri Lanka's parliament in July 1997 in the eastern port of Trincomalee. Overall, an estimated 50,000 people have been killed in the conflict.
On October 15 1997, Tamil Tiger guerrillas exploded a truck bomb and fought street battles with security forces in the heart of Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo. 18 people were killed and 105 wounded. Officials said the attack was aimed at the new 39-storey World Trade Center (WTC) building which also houses the Colombo Stock Exchange, the Central Bank and several foreign companies. The attack represented a serious blow to the Sri Lankan economy which was just beginning to pick up and attract foreign investment.
The previous week, the U.S. State Department added the Tigers to its list of terrorist organisations, outlawing their activities and fund raising in the United States. The Tigers said the U.S. action would only escalate the war. The Sri Lankan government has been pursing a successful programme of trying to marginalise the Tigers internationally and emphasise their role as terrorists. President Chandrika Kumaratunga condemned the attack and said it would not deter her from efforts to resolve the civil war. She has proposed constitutional changes that would give more autonomy to all of Sri Lanka's provinces, including those dominated by Tamils. But her offer falls short of the independence Tamil militants have called for. Sinhalese extremists have also criticised the plan as giving away too much to the Tamils who have said that they will continue their fight for self-determination. Most of the fighting has come in a fierce offensive by the government to capture a strategic highway. The offensive began in May 1997 and is continuing to cause major casualties on both sides.
On January 26 this year, the Sri Lankan government declared the LTTE an outlawed organisation with immediate effect. The move came after the bombing of a 16th century Buddhist shrine regarded as one of the most sacred in the Buddhist world. The attack killed sixteen people. The banning of the group scuppers any chance of negotiating an end to the violence in the short-term. The US banned the group in 1997, while India banned the LTTE after it was implicated in the 1991 assassination of Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi. The move will cause some complications for Britain as the Tamil Tigers have a headquarters in London and use it to raise funds -- funds which its critics claim are used for terrorist attacks.
February 4 1998 saw Sri Lanka's 50th anniversary of Independence celebrations, with Britain's Prince Charles among the invited dignitaries.